Looking for an effective way to give your career a boost? Make finding a mentor a priority.
While anyone can benefit from forming such a relationship, mentorship proves particularly valuable to women. Sometimes viewed by others (and even themselves) as outsiders in an organization or industry, mentors can assist women in bridging information and behavior gaps that may be keeping them from obtaining their career goals.
"Mentors can help you see how you should be seeing the organization, and think how you should be thinking about the organization, in order to be getting ahead. They can act like a sounding board for you inside the organization, too, because they've walked the path before you. They can shed light on the places where there are stumbling places in the path, where there's a roadblock, a pitfall, or a hurdle of some kind."
According to Dawn Fay, senior district director for Robert Half, developing a mentoring relationship can help women better understand what they bring to the table professionally and see more clearly which parts of their skill set might need strengthening.
"A mentoring relationship will often help you better understand the relevance of your contributions to your company," Fay says.
"A mentor can work with you to enhance your technical abilities and increase the worth you bring to your organization. A mentor can suggest areas outside of your current responsibilities in which you could benefit by gaining new knowledge. A carefully selected mentor can help you enhance your interpersonal abilities by working with you in such areas as diplomacy, negotiation, and the ability to work on teams."
Few would deny the significance of mentors offering guidance and potentially opening doors or attracting positive attention for their protégés. Research shows that 76% of people consider mentors important. Yet despite touting their value, not even half of those surveyed say they have a mentor right now. Why the discrepancy?
Why it's hard for women to find mentors
Leaders often see it as their duty to mentor up-and-coming employees. Especially if they received similar guidance during the early years of their career, paying it back feels like a natural part of their professional responsibility. Some even actively court promising protégés and provide introductions, career advice, and other valuable services.
While such relationships need not be among people of the same gender, they trend that way. A mentorship study conducted by Olivet Nazarene University asked participants, "Is your mentor the same gender as you?" Eighty-two percent of men and 69% of women said "yes."
People often possess a greater interest in others similar to themselves or feel they have more to offer someone whose background mirrors their own. While the proportion of women in senior management roles globally is at its highest (29%), that figure still represents a significant gap. And with fewer women than men in these higher positions, female employees are less likely to find themselves naturally taken under someone's wing.
The fallout from the #MeToo movement further complicates the matter. In 2019, research revealed that 60% of male managers reported feeling uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing. That's a 32% jump from the previous year. Hesitancy over how a one-on-one meeting might look to others or how simply eating dinner with a female colleague could be misconstrued keeps many men and women from interacting with one another in settings conducive to mentorship.
Women themselves, however, also need to watch not to stand in their own way. Some shy away from approaching others — male or female — for fear of rejection. Likewise, women may view mentoring as "bothering" the other person and may not want to come off as a pest. Or, they may equate mentoring with asking for help and worry others will perceive them as weak.
4 tips for finding a mentor
Women who want to find a mentor can develop these relationships through a variety of methods. Explore possible options. If one way doesn't seem to be panning out, try a different route. Here are four ways to get started:
1. Join a company-based mentoring program
Savvy organizations — including most Fortune 500 companies — conduct structured, in-house mentoring programs for interested parties. The bonds created between experienced staff and newer workers promote employee development and retention on both sides of the relationship. Some companies even promote "reverse mentoring" where senior executives get paired with young employees and all approach the situation with expectations to learn and teach.
Recognizing the need to build up their female talent but aware of the current climate, some company mentoring programs turn to a group approach. One mentor may meet with two or three people at the same time to discuss common concerns. Another approach is forming small pods of mentors and mentees to gather together regularly to share experiences and ideas. Eliminating the one-on-one contact can ease discomfort among hesitant participants while still promoting connection.
2. Seek advice, and keep building from there
Asking someone outright to be your mentor may feel intimidating and cause the individual to worry she'll be committing to an overly time-consuming task. Instead, consider approaching a woman you admire from the perspective of seeking advice.
"Ask for a meeting, assuring it won't be too much of a strain on their time, but let them know that you'd love their take on a few topics," Fay suggests.
If all goes well, the person may agree to answer other questions when you have them. Over time, you'll be able to build a professional relationship.
"Be intentional," Fay says. "When you schedule time — be it coffee or breakfast, or now, more likely, a video call — make sure you have a clear plan laid out, so you're making the best use of your mentor's time. Don't expect a mentor to lead the conversation — the onus is on you to manage these conversations and make the mentor feel that they are contributing and being productive."
3. Look beyond your immediate environment
No rules exist on who can or cannot serve as a mentor. A woman experiencing problems finding a suitable match can cast a wider net to expand possibilities.
"Leverage public or proprietary social networking tools like LinkedIn or your company's intranet social hub," Azulay suggests. "Look to topical forums like Reddit or LinkedIn special interest groups for places where experts hang out with novices to discuss common topics, tools, or ideas that interest you and about which you want to learn more. Subject matter experts and people with interesting perspectives will emerge when you actively engage and participate. Those people have the potential to become your mentor, and you can approach them to gauge their interest."
Let your own network help out, too. Inform trusted connections of your interest in finding a mentor and what type of knowledge base or characteristics you specifically seek. Individuals who fit your description may be part of their professional circle, and they likely will be more than happy to make recommendations or even introductions.
And remember, your mentor doesn't need to be older than you to have great advice to share. She just needs to have more experience in your field or a particular area of interest.
4. Make it a two-way street
Lastly, remember that mentoring relationships often just spring up naturally. Put yourself in a position to meet a variety of people — perhaps through industry conferences, women's organizations, or volunteer work — and value the connections you make. Offer support to other women when you can. Make connections. Be generous with your help, time, and admiration of the talents of others. Chances are they'll be glad to return the favor.